As Hamas tensions heat up, IDF jets practice bombing ‘hundreds’ of Gaza targets

As Hamas tensions heat up, IDF jets practice bombing ‘hundreds’ of Gaza targets

Air force simulates fighting wars on multiple fronts; military says exercise unrelated to current unrest in coastal enclave

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israeli Air Force simulated a large-scale conflict in the Gaza Strip this week as part of a nation-wide aerial exercise, as tensions ramp up in the Palestinian enclave after a massive flare-up last week, the army said.

“As part of the southern portion of the exercise, dozens of fighter jets simulated strikes on hundreds of targets in the Gaza Strip in a short period of time,” the military said in a statement.

The exercise included actual sorties over the Gaza Strip, with Israeli aircraft filming the coastal enclave.

The Israel Defense Forces added that the air force also practiced giving support to troops in the case of a ground invasion of Gaza.

Israel last fought a war with Hamas-led fighters in Gaza in 2014, the 50-day Operation Protective Edge. In recent months, tensions along the border have ramped up, including a day in late May that saw heavy mortar and rocket fire out of the Strip and Israeli bombing of dozens of sites in Gaza.

Officials warned the flare-up could have easily snowballed into a larger conflict, something both sides say they do not seek.

“We stood up to all the challenges and we are ready for any activity where we are needed,” said the head of the air force’s 105th Squadron, which operates F-16 fighter jets.

The aerial drill, which kicked off Sunday, simulated warfare not only in the Gaza Strip, but also in the north, in Lebanon, and Syria, the army said.

The military said the timing of the exercise was not tied to the recent unrest in the Strip, however, the army’s statement about the drill could be seen as a tacit threat to the Gaza-ruling Hamas terrorist group.

The army said a central aspect of the exercise was to test the air force’s ability to operate in multiple fronts at the same time. In total, hundreds of fighter jets, helicopters, transport planes, and other aircraft took part in the multi-day exercise, which also included night missions.

“In the past day, the [69th Air Squadron] simulated conducting targets in the Gaza Strip, as part of an exercise practicing the widespread outbreak of fighting for the air force,” according to an officer from the squadron whose name was gagged by military regulation.

“We assisted ground troops in their maneuvers during the [simulated] fighting. The planes were equipped with precision bombs, which allows us to strike many targets in a short amount of time,” the officer said.

On Sunday, the army announced it was launching not only the air force drill, but also a large ground-based exercise in southern Israel.

The exercises came amid peak tensions in the Gaza border area, following multiple exchanges of mortar and rocket fire and violence along the security fence.

The military on Thursday also said it expects significant renewed violence along the Gaza security fence on Friday.

Last Saturday night and early Sunday morning, after six projectiles were fired overnight at southern Israel by Palestinian terror groups in the coastal enclave — shattering an unofficial ceasefire agreement — Israeli jets carried out two rounds of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, the army said.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted four of the projectiles, with another apparently landing in Israeli territory and one failing to clear the Gaza border, the army said.

Smoke billowing in the background following an Israeli air strike Gaza City, May 29, 2018. (THOMAS COEX/AFP)

In response to the first two rockets, the air force carried out 10 airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

A few hours later, Israeli air raids targeted “five terror targets in a military compound belonging to the naval force of the terror group Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip,” the IDF said.

The rocket attacks throughout the night sent thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters as sirens were repeatedly triggered to warn of incoming fire.

The army said it held Hamas, which rules the Strip, responsible for the rocket attacks.

The renewed rocket fire followed significant clashes on the Gaza border on Friday and a massive flareup on May 29, in which Palestinian terror groups launched over 100 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel and the military responded by striking more than 65 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad sites in the Strip.

Israeli soldiers stand guard next to an Israeli Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, deployed along the border with the Gaza strip on May 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

In response to the rocket attack on Saturday evening, the IDF launched its first strikes on targets throughout the Gaza Strip just before midnight.

“The IDF, using fighter jets, attacked 10 terror targets in three compounds belonging to the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip. Among the targets that were attacked were two sites used to manufacture and store weapons and a military compound,” the army said.

According to the Hamas-affiliated Shehab news agency, the planes struck sites in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, in the Nuseirat refugee camp, and outside the city of Khan Younis. The Palestinian Quds news site also reported Israeli strikes outside the city of Rafah. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

A video posted on social media reportedly showed the bombing in Shejaiya, which sent a large fireball into the sky.

The rocket launches from Gaza appeared to be the first violation of a fragile ceasefire in effect since Wednesday morning, but came after a weekend of intense violence along the border.

On the Palestinian side of the border last Saturday, thousands attended a funeral for a young female volunteer medic who Palestinians say was shot and killed by the IDF while she was tending to the injured during violent protests on the Gaza border.

The border tension comes following a week that saw the worst escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas since the 2014 war in Gaza. Palestinian terror groups on Wednesday and Thursday fired more than 100 rockets and mortars at towns and cities in southern Israel, and the IDF responded with dozens of airstrikes on Hamas military targets.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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